The Wonderlic Test: Why It Is Useless In The NFL

Dec 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) drops to pass under pressure by New York Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace (97) during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Bills beat the Jets 28-9. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) drops to pass under pressure by New York Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace (97) during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Bills beat the Jets 28-9. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports /

While many question the ethical morality of publically displaying, and criticizing, the results of any “intelligence” test, there are countless other reasons why the Wonderlic should not be used in any capacity within the NFL, especially on professional athletes.

As a foreword, I do having a background in psychology, specifically focused in clinical research and experimental methodology, which led to my professional work as a Psychometrist, a fancy title for someone who administers neurological assessments, such as tests of memory, attention, intelligence, and of any number of other cognitive areas.

To start, here is a little background about the renowned test. The Wonderlic was first developed in 1939 by Eldon Wonderlic in an attempt to create the first “short form” cognitive abilities test,  originally termed the Wonderlic Personnel Test, or WPT. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the test gained traction through studies that collected normative data on job applicants, essentially establishing “average scores” for particular job fields, age ranges, and education levels. In the 1970s, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys began using the the WPT to “forecast” players’ performance out of college, introducing the Wonderlic to the “big stage” of the NFL for the first time.

The most current form of the test is called the Wonderlic Classic Cognitive Ability Test, although there are dozens of more specialized test forms with alternative names. As an assessment tool, the test is primarily used by businesses and government organizations to evaluate job applicants for employment and occupational training. There are an estimated  2.5 million people that take the WPT annually. The Wonderlic tests for “general intelligence,” or basic knowledge of mathematics, reading, and vocabulary, and purportedly measures an individual’s ability to “learn, adapt, solve problems, and understand instructions.” It’s a “self-administered” test, although it is most likely given under the supervision of team officials, much like an ACT or SAT type of environment. The test is composed of 50 questions, which you have 20 minutes to complete to the best of your ability.

The actual scoring of the test is fairly straight-forward, being based solely on the number of questions answer correctly in the allotted time period. Although questions on the exam do get increasingly harder as you progress through the test, there is no penalty for incorrect or skipped questions. The final score is the sum of the correct answers. Period. Subsequently, there is a maximum score of 50 points, with the overall average for the test being 21 points. Scores within 3 points of one another are generally thought of to be of the same ability level, although that type of generalized range can sometimes cause problems when comparing scores.

While the “average” may be 21 points, there are clearly higher and lower “normal” scores for certain education levels and occupations. For example, the average score for someone with a college education is 29 points, while the average score of the typical warehouse worker is only 14 points. Naturally, occupations that revolve around the fields of mathematics, or that require more extensive vocabularies would perform higher on a test primarily composed of those types of questions. Chemists and Journalist, for example, average scores of 31 and 26, respectively, both of which are higher that the overall average score. However, that leads to the question of how this would apply to professional athletes, and their performance on the field…

There is no reason to rip on a player for not completing his college degree, especially when that persons’ chosen occupation seemingly does not require it for employment. With that said, when a player is being evaluated for that “job,” which does not specifically deal with general knowledge of reading lexicon or factoring exponents, it seems contradictory to bash an individual’s performance on that general intelligence test. For example, Justin Blackmon does not need to know “the volume of a cylinder with a height of 6 inches and a radius of 3 inches” in order to properly run a fade route. Darren Davis, who recorded a mere 4 points on his Wonderlic, does not need to know the meaning of the word “Satiate” in order to be able to learn a complex offensive playbook.  According to Dan Masonson, the former NFL Corporate Communications Manager, as of 2004, roughly 46% of NFL players had a college degree. That means that not only are these young athletes not entering into a profession that focuses on a Mathematics or English, but a significant percentage of them do not even have the educational background to perform on-par with others in a similar age group. Moreover, there could, and should, be something mentioned about the caliber of coursework that a large percentage of student-athletes complete while attending their respective universities. However, that can be saved for a later time and place.

With all assessment tools, a singular test should not be used to evaluate an individual, especially a 50-question exam that test for general knowledge, as opposed to specific knowledge in a given field (i.e. football knowledge).  The “standard” for I.Q. tests is the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), which, in its most current version, has 10-core subtests that range from vocabulary to visual tasks, such as visual puzzles. Even with that, it would likely not accurately measure an NFL prospect’s ability to digest a playbook, make split-second decisions on the field, or read coverage from behind center. If scouts and analysts truly want to gauge their athletes’ “mental abilities” prior to them setting foot in an NFL locker room, the league should invest in research to compose an intelligence tool that measures cognitive abilities as they pertain to the sport of football. We don’t expect that our aeronautics engineers to know gap responsibilities or coverage schemes, so why would we except professional football players to be able to solve relatively complex math problems or extrapolate the meanings of low-frequency words simply from their use in a sentence?

Fun Facts: On average, Offensive Tackles (26) and Centers (25) have the highest Wonderlic scores, while Wide Receivers (17), Fullbacks (17), and Halfbacks (16) have the lowest average scores. The lowest score ever recorded was 4 by Darren Davis, while the highest score was a perfect 50 by Pat McInally.

For your own reference, here are some examples of “medium” difficultly questions from a former version of the Wonderlic:

What is the mathematical average of the number of weeks in a year, seasons in a year, and the number of days in January?

A) 36

B) 33

C) 32

D) 31

E) 29

35% of what number is 70?

A) 100

B) 110

C) 150

D) 175

E) 200

The general tried to instill in his troops the hope of victory. Instill means…

A) Infuse

B) Delay

C) Inscribe

D) Indict